You know a videogame has grabbed your full attention when you step into its world for the first time and six hours later you haven’t even moved for a toilet break. Generally, though not always, it tends to be role-playing games that have the power to absorb me in their open-world environments, lose me in their in-depth mechanics and keep me glued to the screen for hours on end, franchises like Oblivion, Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch, a JRPG from Level-5 the creators of the White Chronicles and Professor Layton series, is the latest game to have that effect on me, whisking me away from the outset into its colourful land full of charming characters, feel-good quests and strategically-engaging battles. I went to bed the other night with in-game scenarios whizzing through my end before Mr. Drippy popped up in one my dreams. When you wake up thinking about a game, you know it’s something special.
From the moment I wandered through the intricately-detailed town of Motorville, laid eyes on the rolling hills surrounding the quaint town of Ding Dong Dell and met Mr. Drippy, the hilarious side-kick of the game’s main character, I was sold. Ni No Kuni is a beautiful-looking game and part of its charm is enjoying the characters you meet and the environments that Level-5 has created, but equally as absorbing are the slick animated cut-scenes that help tell the story so superbly.
Created by world renowned Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, the anime-style animation and art-work combine impressively to deliver a variety of attractive locations for gamers to lose themselves in. But it’s not just how things look; it’s also about how it feels controlling and being the game’s lead character Oliver. The way he slots into this world and makes you feel like you’re starring in your own anime movie, the way he runs down a set of steps, meanders through a babbling brook or casts a spell just feels right and sounds spot-on. The attention to fine details, how movement complements the impressive audio work, is commendable. Ni No Kuni delivers an audio and visual experience that has regularly made me grin from ear to ear.
STORYLINE SPOILER – The following couple of paragraphs tell you what happens to Oliver right at the beginning of Ni No Kuni.
The opening sequences, which switch between cut-scenes and gameplay flawlessly, set up the storyline superbly. Mummy’s boy Oliver, just thirteen years of age, bows into peer group pressure by a neighbour and sneaks out of his bed in the middle of the night to joy-ride around the streets of Motorville. The picture-perfect town of Motorville paints an idyllic canvas of his life but things turn sour when he crashes the car into a lake. His mother meanwhile, discovering that Oliver is missing from his bed, has taken to the streets to search for him. She finds him drowning in the lake, dives in, saves him and then…dies. Ouch. Days later, when Oliver is seen holding the precious toy that his mum had bought for him when he was younger, he’s shown crying into it hysterically calling out for her. The drama and emotion of the tale is portrayed with the skill of a seasoned producer who knows how to affect the audience; and at this point, I welled up.
The toy comes to life and becomes Mr. Drippy, one of the first members of a cast of loveable and interesting characters that you meet. Mr. Drippy sticks with Oliver through most of the adventure, helping to build the storyline and keep you entertained with his humorous quips. You soon learn that there’s a parallel world where everyone has a soul mate. We’re also told that Oliver is the child who can save the world and after stepping through a gateway the adventure begins. You get a wizard’s book, which becomes populated with all kinds of interesting information and spells, grab a magic wand, and receive a Familiar, a small creature that can be conjured up to help fight alongside you. You’re then off into a colourful and dark world filled with fairies, trees that talk, bizarre creatures and the evil Shadar, who Oliver will one day come face-to-face with.
I’ve yet to complete Ni No Kuni, so don’t know exactly how it all pans out, but I’m loving the plot so far, which is made all the better by the wacky characters that you can interact with and some excellent voice acting. The animated sequences blend in with gameplay flawlessly and, much like the brilliant Okami, it feels like you’re walking through the pages of a book, or starring in your own anime film. From the outset, this is an engaging fantasy tale full of drama, emotion and humour, one which has swept me away alongside its charming soundtrack.
As you’d expect from an RPG, gameplay involves a fair bit of moving from ‘A’ to ‘B’ on fetch quests and interacting with NPCs. You pick up errand objectives, which involve anything from searching the hills around town for flowers and spring water, to seeking out the king’s lost red herring from the castle moat. One of the most frequent tasks you carry out is searching for NPCs that are brimming with enthusiasm, courage, faith, love and other traits. You then have to cast a spell to borrow their trait and then search for people lacking in these areas to help heal them. Though there’s no real skill needed to carry out these tasks – you’re simply going through the motions – I found myself spending a lot of time involved in these objectives and enjoying the feelings evoked through healing some of the town folk, and the rewards they bring.
Indeed, it’s hard not to get sucked into these side quests due to their charming nature, but also because the rewards make them worth it. By completing quests you gain merit stickers which are used to fill up merit cards (much like the cards you get in Subway or Costa Coffee.) Once you fill up a merit card with 10 stickers you get to choose a perk which can be invaluable later on in the game, such as the ability to run faster or be able to jump. You earn money too which can be spent in the shops around town, upgrading your weapons, armour, buying trinkets or stocking up on provisions. Money becomes vitally important because it’s during combat where Ni No Kuni really challenges and without the right equipment you’re doomed.
There are bounty hunting side quests where you come into contact with creatures and in return you gain cash and items, but battles largely take place when you follow the main quest-line and have no choice but to battle against enemies and Shadar’s cronies, including the likes of Rhinosaurs, Minor Byrdes or Baatenders, unique designs based on animals that you’d find in the real world. Combat combines real-time and turn-based action, which ensures that there’s plenty of action as you can move freely around the arenas. If you approach a creature, or one manages to chase you down, then you enter into a combat arena where it’s you and your Familiar battling against one or more enemies. There’s a health and magic bar to keep an eye on and you can take advantage of melee combat with a variety of hand-based weapons or use a variety of spells from afar, perhaps firing a block of ice or fireball at an enemy. After the cooldown period, you have the option to then switch with the d-pad to your Familiar to use their strengths and spells.
As you progress, more Familiars join your squad and – as they all have different elemental attributes – it’s up to you to switch between the right characters to bring down enemies effectively. Initially, roaming across the hills fighting smaller creatures proves to be a good way and easy way to level up quickly, but soon enough the challenge gets really intense and cranks up in pace. The battle system is intuitive to use, though decisions do have to be made extremely quickly in the heat of battle. The option to defend, attack, cast a spell, eat a provision on your turn to boost an attribute, or cure an ailment, need to be made based on how the battle is playing out. There’s no way you can just blast your way through most fights and win, so a large part of the fun is juggling in between actions, managing your Familiars well, counter-attacking and defending appropriately by watching out for when your enemy is about to launch a killer attack.
Combat is entertaining thanks to the well-thought out battle system and the highlight of the fights comes from boss battles where you need to bring together everything you have learned and take advantage of the strengths of your Familiars. Nonetheless, the frequency of the battles outside of the main quests can get a little irritating. On many occasions I’ve simply wanted to complete a side-quest yet strolling across the countryside is a dangerous business and it can be impossible to avoid being constantly attacked. When these weaker enemy battles are so simple to win, I don’t really see the point of having to fight them time and time again.
While it’s true that the quality production, storyline, art and audio turn out to be the main stars of Ni No Kuni, serving to make it such a memorable experience, I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed the battle system too which is simple to use yet challenging to master during the intense fights. It’s also fun managing yourself and your Familiars and spending time in the shops ensuring that everyone is equipped well for the battles ahead and carrying out quests to get the cash and rewards to make life a little easier.
Overall, Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch is a stunning combination of engaging narrative, beautiful animation and engaging JRPG gameplay and, for the most part, I’ve spent a large part of this game with a massive grin on my face.